He should never have been fighting like this.

Fighting, yes. Charr were born to a life of fighting, and he’d taken to it well – in his own way. But his own way was not this way. A crush like this was where the Blood Legion belonged. Just get right in there and hack at the enemy – they loved that. And with the ghosts flocking all around them, thick as morning fog, there were certainly a lot of enemies to hack at.

Garruf Cloudstep wasn’t in Blood Legion, though. His way was that of Ash Legion – study the target, see them without being seen, and when the time was right, close in for a quick, sure kill. That was how Ash Legion worked, and the Cloud warband had been one of the most promising at it. They’d all trained in the tactics of covert operation and precise assassination, and Garruf was the keen point of the well-honed knife that was his warband.

Now he was surrounded by foes, none of whom were even all that special among their own ranks – just the rank and file of Ashford’s ghostly horde – and all of whom already knew quite well where he was. No matter how he tried to divert their attention, to twist the shadows and hide in plain sight, he couldn’t get behind one for a good strike without diving right into another.

And even on those rare occasions he did manage what should have been a solid hit, his daggers just plunged into the insubstantial forms with as much impact as stabbing a cloud. They had no organs or nerves to strike anymore; all they were was hatred given some twisted semblance of life.

Ember Cloudeye, the warband’s finest scout, had tried to find the driving force behind this uprising. It was worse than the ghosts had ever been, and they all agreed that there had to be some reason for it. The ghosts still kept some conventions – they still had commanders, they still looked to their ghostly Duke above all – and Ember had gone in search of intelligence accordingly. They’d heard her screams minutes later, brutally cut off. The ranger had crested her last hill.

That hadn’t sat well with their Legionnaire. Akren Cloudrage had kept his temper in check for so long, most people who met him thought his name was ironic. When Ember had died, though, still inside the bounds of Smokestead, he’d lost it. He’d charged in with a roar, sword flashing, cutting through the ghosts and ripping out streamers of phantasmal essence. For a moment it had seemed like raw fury would serve to drive the ghosts out.

Then the same ghosts he’d dispersed had started reforming around him, and he’d been cut off. His half-brother, Cinder Cloudflare, had done his best to give support, blasting the ghosts away with fire, only to have them surround him, too, insubstantial blades cutting into him, disrupting his focus even as he was gathering the next fireball in his palm. To his last, he’d fought – one final blast of fire had ravaged a dozen ghosts around him. But it had sparked his funeral pyre.

From his warband, there was just him and Spark, now – Spark Cloudsight. The mesmer’s conjurations were like ghosts themselves, whirling dervishes whose blades streamed with eldritch force, cutting into the very essence of the ghosts’ being. But all Garruf’s effort couldn’t keep the ghosts off of her. Even as he ducked under a blow and looked her way, a ghostly axeman hacked at one of Spark’s images – and this one had found the real Charr. Ezra slumped to the singed turf without a sound, her conjurations dissolving into smoke and sparkles.

Garruf swallowed. It was down to him, now. There were hundreds of Charr fighting here, but he was the only one left to keep his warband’s name alive. And if he didn’t survive at least long enough to carry the tale, nobody would know what his bandmates had truly died for.

But though Garruf had stayed alive the longest, dancing through the shadows, he hadn’t been able to have much of an impact.

There was no intelligence to be gained here, not that he could get without support. He had to fall back, connect with Ash Legion command, and try a new, smarter approach. Snarling, he jumped over a low swing, ducked and rolled under a chop, and drove both daggers into his attacker for good measure.

Stabbing a cloud. It might be enough to give one ghost a moment’s pause, if he was lucky – but that still left a half-dozen doing their damnedest to cut his soul from its place.

He was tiring. They were getting closer and closer to him, now. For all his efforts to play it smart, to dodge through the ghostly ranks and get to the main body of Charr, their unreal blades marked him, driving the chill of death into his body. One of them stabbed deep into his leg – stumbling, he howled, raking his attacker with both knives and shredding it into wispy tatters. But the damage had been done; he collapsed, barely able to keep his head up as three more came toward him, weapons raised.

“We put you in the ground already,” he choked out. “Why won’t you stay there?!”

In answer, they swung.

And the world vanished in a plume of roaring fire.

Garruf flinched, wondering for an instant if all those tired human stories about gods and fiery hells had been true after all – but the fire wasn’t burning him.

As suddenly as it had begun, the stream of fire cut off, leaving behind it only thin, ghostly wails undercutting the more distant sounds of the ongoing battle.

A figure stomped closer, clad in the heavy, metal-reinforced leathers of the Iron Legion, its eyes hidden behind thick lenses. On its back was a great monstrosity of a pack, complete with a thick, green glass tank in which some thick fluid sloshed, a heavy hose connecting the tank to a long wand of sorts that still had a small flame like a candle’s dancing at its tip, right in front of a sturdy nozzle. The figure – undisputably solid and Charr, but with details otherwise concealed by its gear – balanced this wand in one hand, the other tugging one of a great many vials from its belt and holding it out as it crouched down. “Swallow this, cub!” growled a hoarse masculine voice. “It’ll get you back on your feet!”

At other times, Garruf might have questioned, might have demurred – with the ghosts pushed back, he didn’t think his wounds were fatal, he could get back to the Charr lines for tending. But now was not the time to start fighting stupid. The ghosts might have cleared out of this little space for the moment, but they were still thick as flies on a week-old corpse out there. He grabbed the flask, pulled the stopper free, and tossed it back, while his benefactor made another sweep with his flamethrower, keeping the ghosts at bay.

The fluid was thick and oily, decidedly bitter, but that one swig sent a warmth chasing through him, pushing out the chill where the ghosts’ blades had marked him. So help him, he actually felt like he could fight some more.

The flamethrower had painted a curtain of flickering fire between them and the thickest press of the ghosts, and the Iron soldier hunkered down next to him. “We are leaving, soldier!” the engineer snarled, holding out a gauntleted arm. “Come on!”

A trained Ash Legion operative, caught off guard behind friendly lines, saved by a clanking Iron Legion cogsmith. He’d never live this down. But at least this way he’d get a chance to try. Garruf seized the offered arm and pulled himself upright. The other Charr was solid, all the more so for his heavy equipment; he didn’t even budge under Garruf’s weight.

The engineer wasn’t done. From his belt he drew a heavy pistol, holding it out by the barrel. “Take this and cover my back,” he instructed. “They might not have flesh to shoot or stab, but they obviously don’t like the fire!”

Garruf gave the thing a quick look-over. Not standard make, he could tell that – it had signs of Iron Legion tinkering all over it, above and beyond the basic workmanship he’d run into in the past. Well, maybe that was for the best. The Iron soldier was right – fire worked a lot better on these things than metal alone. “Right!” he snapped, taking the grip firmly in hand and sighting along it. It wasn’t as though these things took a great deal of finesse to use; he’d manage.

A ghostly swordsman shouted, charging past the edge of the flame wall and towards them. Garruf levelled the pistol, squeezed the trigger, and a great plume of fire erupted from the muzzle, the slug coming out so hot it left a streak across his vision.

No, the ghost didn’t like that one bit. It staggered, crying out, and the wind tore it into shreds, giving the pair one more moment to breathe.

“Hope you’ve got spares!” Garruf called as he took up a position against the engineer’s back. “There’s a lot of them coming for us!”

“Got a half-dozen just like it back there!” the Iron Charr shouted back, patting the side of his pack where, indeed, a brace of similarly-tooled pistols hung. “Swap out and drop ’em as they run dry! Now let’s get out of here!”

The roar of the flamethrower underscored that instruction, blocking any reply Garruf might have made. Time to go.

Back to back, armed with fire, they cut a swath through the ghosts and made their way back toward friendly lines.